Jan 29, 2020











SUBJECTS: Bushfire recovery process; Bridget McKenzie; Coronavirus; sports rorts.


ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks for joining us. I am very pleased to be here today with the Shadow Minister assisting myself as Leader of the Opposition, but also the Shadow Minister for Sport, Don Farrell. And I did want to make comment about two issues today. The Shadow Cabinet has just met here in Melbourne and we discussed two major issues. One of those was of course bushfires and the impact that it has had over this season and the recovery. I frankly was somewhat stunned to see Scott Morrison’s address to the National Press Club say, essentially, that he was going to take action where action is not necessary. All that is required to roll out the Australian Defence Force and to maximise all of the resources that are at the disposal of the national Government is something called leadership. It doesn’t need legislation. It requires a leader who is prepared to act. Now, we have called upon the Prime Minister to act, each and every day for months. Including, of course, in writing to him on November 22. I will read out the first point of that. It said, ‘COAG should be discussing steps towards a new national strategy for disaster preparedness’. It went on to speak about the Defence Force. It went on to speak about the issues that we continue to raise. The need for economic compensation for our volunteer firefighters and for the need for a national approach. Day after day, week after week this Prime Minister has said that it was a matter for the states. This is of course a nonsense. And here in Victoria, of all places, that is known. Because when Black Saturday occurred, the Defence Force was on the ground the very next day. Within 24 hours providing the sort of assistance that we know the Defence Force is capable of. Making a difference to people’s lives. Making a difference in terms of preparation and now as we are seeing the Defence Force making a major difference in terms of recovery. I spoke to someone just over the weekend about the use of Bushmasters that has occurred around Batlow, around that region of New South Wales, making a difference. Clearing out property, getting people back to a reasonable state. So, for the Prime Minister to instead of going to the National Press Club and outlining a plan for the economy, a plan for wages, a plan to deal with climate change, a plan to deal with the big issues that confront Australia, all we have is the Prime Minister addressing the National Press Club with not much to say at all.

And that goes to the second issue that we have discussed this morning. Because it is one of the reasons why this Government is so distracted. So distracted because it is all about themselves. One of the things they do, this Government, is play politics with everything. And we have seen that played out. We have seen it played out with the sports rorts scandal whereby the Government is so desperate in the lead-up to the election campaign in May 2019, threw out due process right out the window. We have had circumstances whereby clubs have received three grants when they only needed one. We have seen announcements made in the Prime Minister’s own electorate, months before the official announcement was made. We have had clubs that received a 50 ranking out of 100 get funding but clubs that received 98 out of 100 got not a cent. We have seen a complete abuse. And what we have with Bridget McKenzie is a discredited minister who can’t say what the basis of these decisions was. Well, the Audit Office have told us what it was. It was politics rather than proper process. We saw taxpayers’ funds used on giant cheques with people who weren’t even Members of Parliament with their photos on it as if they were personal cheques from people like Georgina Downer. This is a rort. Everyone knows it is a rort. And that is why this morning we have supported a senate inquiry into this rort. And we will be pursuing that. And I would ask Don Farrell to outline where it will go in terms of as our Shadow Minister but also a senior person in our senate team.


DON FARRELL, SHADOW MINISTER FOR SPORT: Thank you, Leader. As the Leader just said, everybody except Bridget McKenzie knows that a rort has gone on here. It started with the National Audit Office, the Auditor General he made it very clear that the Minister breached all of her guidelines for the distribution of this $100 million grant. Over the last week, we found out that people in her own office were warning the Minister that what she was doing was wrong, very wrong. And of course, in the last couple of days we have found out that Sport Australia were actually telling thee Minister that what she was doing was wrong. Over the long weekend, I’ve spoken to all of the crossbenchers. They are as angry as the Labor Party is and the Australian community is about what has gone on here and we’ve got agreement that there will be a Senate Select Committee established one day next week. And we will start the process of finding out what has gone on here and getting to the bottom of this rather tawdry scandal that has developed over the last two weeks. We intend to ensure that we discover exactly what has gone on here. Starting with the original set of guidelines, working through how those guidelines were breached by the Minister herself and how this money was distributed. And we will be reporting back at the end of March to the Australian people about exactly what has gone on here.


ALBANESE: Thanks very much. Happy to take questions.


JOURNALIST: First on Bridget McKenzie, what measures need to be introduced so that we won’t see a repeat of this sports grants scandal?


FARRELL: Firstly, we need to know what has gone wrong here and that is what we are going to do with this inquiry. Labor intends to ensure that this never happens again, that the minister can’t simply breached their own set of guidelines in the lead-up to an election for political purposes. What we know from the Auditor General is that these grants overwhelmingly went to Liberal marginal seats, National Party marginal seats and the seats that the Government was trying to win off the independents. Can I just give you one example, in that the seat of Mayo, Rebekha Sharkie’s seat. Georgina Downer presented a novelty check of $127,000 dollars to the bowling club in the area. When Rebekha Sharkie went to Sport Australia and said, ‘Listen, some of the other clubs in my electorate would like to come forward with some grant applications’, she was told by Sport Australia, ‘No, those applications have closed’. After that occurred, a further four grants came in to Sport Australia. And guess what? Every single one of those grant applications was approved by the Minister McKenzie. We can’t let that happen again. We have got a Select Committee. Let the Select Committee do its work and find out exactly what has happened here. And then we will come back to the Parliament with a suggestion as to how we ensure this never happens again


ALBANESE: A couple of things, also, if I could just add on the broader scale of what needs to happen. This do-nothing Government committed in 2018 to have a National Integrity Commission. We’re still waiting on the legislation. Makes a bit more sense now for why they don’t really want one. And they don’t want one with the power to independently decide to have an investigation. We think that if the Government is at all fair dinkum, this Government that can rush through legislation on the last sitting day of last year without a single opportunity of a word being said about industrial relations legislation that have been rejected in the Senate, just weeks beforehand, hasn’t had the time and hasn’t got around to dealing with the National Integrity Commission. It is a scandal as well. And what we need to do is to restore public confidence in the processes of Government. In a democracy that’s essential. And at the moment, every day that Bridget McKenzie stays as a Cabinet Minister, it undermines faith in our democracy. Because anyone who looks at this knows that this is just a complete rort. It’s a scandal of massive proportions. The National Audit Office report itself, independent, the Prime Minister doesn’t need his former chief of staff to do a report on this. He has one by the National Audit Office already.


JOURNALIST: Do you have any concerns over the Government’s handling of the Coronavirus?


ALBANESE: Well, we are certainly concerned about this as well. And we will cooperate with the Government over these issues. I spoke to Qantas this morning and Qantas have, as they always have done, being prepared to come to the party and offer aerial assistance in order to evacuate Australians from China. It seems to me that would be a sensible thing to do. Of course, one of the other issues is that the person in charge of biosecurity in this country, as well, is someone called Bridget McKenzie. And she’s distracted. That’s one of the reasons why this minister should go. You have a massive issue of which the minister is directly responsible. And has the minister said anything about this? Is she involved in this? Is she engaged with this? If she has, I haven’t seen it. Because this is a Government minister who’s missing in action because she’s an embarrassment to the Government.


JOURNALIST: The PM has confirmed that the Federal Government will try to evacuate Australians. He just made that announcement recently. What do you make of that?


ALBANESE: Well, Qantas certainly have provided that offer to the Government. As a former Aviation Minister, I know that whenever they have been called upon, it’s one of the reasons why having a national airline is important. That’s a good thing. It’s also important that we put in place strict measures based upon medical advice.


JOURNALIST: They are going to be evacuated to Christmas Island. Are you okay with Christmas Island being established as a quarantine area?


ALBANESE: Well, look, it’s important that medical advice be given. I guess given that Christmas Island is there at great cost to the taxpayer currently with four people on Christmas Island, one of them aged four and one of them aged two, then this, of course, Christmas Island was reopened as a media stunt for the Government at great cost some time ago. I would take medical advice as to where the evacuations should occur to, and what appropriate procedures are in place. I think those decisions should be made on the basis of health advice, not on the basis of politics.


JOURNALIST: So, you don’t think it is a good decision?


ALBANESE: No, I am not a health expert. I believe that the appropriate advice should be given from the health authorities and that’s what’s important. Not any political interference in the process.


JOURNALIST: Are there other measures that the Government needs to introduce to ensure Australia is kept safe from the Coronavirus?


ALBANESE: I’m not Dr Albanese up here who is an expert on this. The Government needs to follow all the appropriate medical advice.


JOURNALIST: Back on Bridget McKenzie, does there need to be another round of funding for sporting clubs that missed out in light of the revelations?


ALBANESE: Well, what we have here is there shouldn’t have been rorts in the first place. We don’t know currently, can I say this as well, that yesterday, the ABC reported the colour-coded documentation, clearly outlining how the rort happened. Colour-coded based upon marginality, based upon who the local member was and whether they were a target seat. The Government’s response to that was to launch an investigation from Richard Colbeck into whether a public servant had given that documentation. What they should be concerned about is the documentation itself. But no concern about that. And I would call upon the Government to give assurances that there won’t be a witch hunt of public servants who have more integrity than this Government, including this Minister.


JOURNALIST: For Australians everywhere, their concern is that their local footy clubs, which really deserve to be changed and have missed out, to the public, do you think for them does there need to be another round of funding so that these community groups can get the infrastructure that they need?


ALBANESE: What there should be is proper processes in place over those processes. We haven’t had that. The fact is that the grants themselves, the Audit Office has not found a legal basis for the minister making these grants. So, they are all up in the air in terms of the legality of the minister intervening. You have proper processes in place, and under this grant was Sport Australia, an independent body, and in terms of the legislation, doesn’t provide for ministerial discretion, it provides for a very clear process to take place. Now, all of those clubs that have missed out on funding, we don’t know what they are, because the Government has hidden that information. But I’m sure Don might like to comment on the role of the inquiry and getting out that information.


FARRELL: Well, thank you. That’s exactly what we intend to do. We believe that through this senate inquiry process, that we’ll be able to get access to the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of applications which Sport Australia approved which the minister threw out and replaced with her own set of selections. We had here a program, where more than 2,000 people applied for what was going to be a very good project. They thought this was on the level. They thought if they put in their best application, that would be approved. And as we know, of course, the best applications were not approved. The minister rejected those and replaced them with biased and politically motivated applications. And we’ll get to the bottom of this. And I’m pretty confident that when we call representatives from Sport Australia, when we call representatives from the Auditor General’s Office, that we will get this information. And once we’ve got that information, we’ll make some decisions about what we do with all of these people who should have got the grants but didn’t.


ALBANESE: Thanks very much.